The Irrationality of Irrationality

When you let the word “irrational” roll off your tongue, you do a very irrational thing: You specify something that doesn’t exist. It is very much like trying do describe a vaccum (not the cleaner, but rather the contents of emptiness).

These days, it is very popular and a big hit to argue that people are economically motivated by irrational behaviors. That is also sort of like saying “light is dark”.

Arguing with such nonsense is an exercise in futility. Just because someone can’t explain something does not mean there is no explanation for it. Besides that, I challenge anyone to give an adequately precise definition of the term “irrational”. In my opinion, the fact that a brain is in a living state means that there is some kind of rationalization going on. It may seem odd, but mainly if you are unfamiliar with odd things, odd thought, odd behavior and such.

Let me give you an example. There’s a guy named Dan Ariely who maintains to be an expert on irrationality. I’ve watched some of his presentations, and I’ve observed that he actually seems to be jiving people: He says he talks about irrational behavior, but actually what he is talking about behavior that simply doesn’t conform to the laws of economics commonly taught in academia. For example, in one talk I paid attention to, he mentioned some law which basically said that if someone prefers A to B and also prefers B to C, it would be irrational to prefer C to A. What nonsense! This would be like saying that if someone likes ketchup more than relish, they would do something like drink a whole bottle of ketchup right out of the bottle. My hunch is that before someone had drunk less than half the bottle, they would no longer go near the ketchup for at least a week. Would that be irrational?

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For some, we get lost in media

I opened up a copy of the New York Times today, and in an empty space within an article, there was a blurb that reads

Social networks put individuals at the center of their own media universes

— I am not even sure I understand what that is supposed to mean. Let alone the notion of a plurality of universes, the idea that media are not between people but rather like belly buttons for individuals to discover themselves within … I just find it mind-boggling. Then again, according to the surrounding words in the article next to this message, social media are depicted as breeding grounds for “fake news”, as cesspools for propagating mythical stories, for manipulating large populations of suckers into following this or that social media expert, leader, salesman or whatever.

“Social” is seen as the big mistake, the errant sidetrack from the collapsing foundations of journalism. Four words seem hidden somewhere in between the lines: I told you so. Naive and forlorn like Dorothy in a dizzying whirlwind, individuals end up as victims of lever-pulling hackers, clowns and con-artists. Social media transport hoaxes and fairy tales, yet they are also instruments targeted at novice users, training wheels to guide their first steps in the cyber-landscape. The virtual world is both for the light-hearted at the same time that it’s a wide field of thin ice. Throughout this portrayal, the real world is not embodied in media. Instead, real-world people with real-world addresses exist behind real-world mastheads printed on real-world paper. They carry real-world business cards, not fake virtual URLs.

Real-world buildings, with real-world street addresses, real-world telephones and such media are the physical conduits for real-world relationships. In contrast (so the argument), virtual facades evaporate into thin air as soon as a video screen is turned off.

This contrast might be all good and fine, except that it is a lie. None of these things are any more real than the other. Main Street is nothing without the street sign signifying it as such. The reason why we can agree to meet at Main Street is that we both understand it to be Main Street, and this agreement is based on us both understanding how to read street signs. Indeed: we agree on many things, of which such street signs are fine examples. We can also agree on the time of day, to speak the same language, or to answer each other’s questions succinctly and truthfully. Such agreements are crucial for us to help each other reach our goals, whether we hold the same goals in common, or whether each of us is trying to reach our own particular individual goals.

By reaching our goals, we become not only successful, we also become who we are.  We actually self-actualize our identities. For example: a writer does not simply exist, he or she becomes a writer by writing. A worker becomes a worker by working. A buyer becomes a buyer by buying, a seller becomes a seller by selling, a consumer becomes a consumer by consuming and a producer becomes a producer by producing. As these last examples show, sometimes we can only self-actualize when other conditions are met, and sometimes these conditions also require the engagement of other people. In this sense, reaching our own goals involves a team effort — as, for example, a sale involves the teamwork of both a buyer and a seller.

Therefore, the real world is not so much a matter of separated individuals as it is the interaction and engagement of individuals with each other in a symbiotic process of self-actualization. We become who we are by interacting with one another. Our goals aren’t distinct and separate, they’re intertwined. We need to think of media as bustling marketplaces for such exchanges to take place, rather than as sterile and inert transport mechanisms. These are not empty tubes simply bridging gaps, they are stages for playing out our roles in real life.

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Should You be Concerned about the Rate of Literacy if Over 99% Are Illiterate?

When people were living in caves, probably most of them didn’t create cave paintings. Certainly none of them spoke English – and the alphabet hadn’t even been invented yet. The rate of literacy was without the shadow of a doubt 0%. But they managed to stay alive nonetheless.

Today, people often cite literacy rates of 99% – or even 100%. Yet what are they referring to? Does literacy include the ability to start a computer? To set up an email account? To send an SMS or to „program“ a coffee machine?

What about being able to write a complete sentence in English with no grammatical errors? Or how about understanding that the top 10 results on google.com are simply what Google wants you to see, nothing more and nothing less?

What about the realization that Google knows where you are right now (or at any moment)? That you know they are reading your email, even if you don’t use or have a gmail account yourself? (if + when you send an email to a gmail account) That they will give this information to other people without telling you about it?

What does literacy mean?

In my view of literacy, it means understanding that while .com means commercial, .co means Columbia. That .blog means WordPress, and that .app means Google.

According to this interpretation of literacy, far less than 1% of almost any population are literate… and I totally understand that this is a very high bar (or standard).

Likewise, I agree that it is expecting a lot for me to expect people to realize that when there are two kinds of content – „sponsored content“ and „unsponsored content“ – the content creators usually care much more about the „sponsored“ content.

I realize that the juxtaposition of „retard media“ vs. „rational media“ is controversial.

I understand that it might seem draining for someone in the top percentile with respect to literacy to hear that their level of literacy is actually hardly more than rather ordinary. When being in the top percentile is considered not good enough, then I can imagine that might feel rather demotivating. I constantly fear being seen as a vampire, sucking the energy out of some the most skilled people alive. Yet this is not simply a matter of flesh and blood human beings. It’s a technological issue.

Think of Larry Lessig’s notion that „code is law“. Think of your rights and responsibilities. Think of manifesting natural law in your words and actions. Think of your expressions, your meanings, your contributions to the unraveling evolution of nature itself. You are a part of this environment. You cannot excuse yourself, because there is no other place to go. Whatever you do will ultimately lead to the future outcome to which your contributions will contribute towards.

Then again, whether or not you try to oppose evolution, there is little doubt that it will inevitably take its course. You can hardly stop the forward march of time.

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The Rationality of Intimacy

I can imagine many people might think the title of this post means it will be all about love, sex and such. Well, not exactly. It’s about relationships – but not merely limited to the exclusive kind of relationship two lovers who might be married might have.

It also isn’t about cheating husbands or wives. So what is this post about? (is there anything left? 👿 )

Well, I almost hate to break it to you: It’s about how relationships interact with language. 😐 I know: It’s just what you were afraid of. Abstract and dry, when you were thinking you might finally get hot and steamy. Sorry, Charlie. 🙁

The rest of you, however, might still find this post somewhat amusing and entertaining – so please: Do read on! 😀

Most of what I have been writing about above is expressed in a plain and simple language – the kind of talk you might expect to exchange with someone while walking around town. But there are many other people on earth than the folks you might meet while out and about socializing. You are probably more intimate with some people, and less intimate with other people. Another way of saying this is that your close friends are close relationships, and that your more distant friends are distant relationships (and in this sense closeness doesn’t really refer to geographical distance, but rather to the level of intimacy in the relationship).

Although few people would actually be surprised to hear me say so, most people don’t seem to think much about how intimacy plays a role in language and communication. However, I do think we talk significantly differently with close friends than we do with distant friends. Indeed, this is almost blatantly obvious when people consider the way they talk with their mostsignificant other“. At this degree of intimacy, the language we use almost becomes a private matter, and the meanings of expressions are like intimate secrets among utmost „insiders“.

The other extreme is more complicated linguistically. There is really no exact point at which someone is an extreme foreigner. If they do not understand our language at all – well, that would be close… but they might still smile or understand us in some similar intuitive manner. Even a dog or a cat could recognize if someone is happy, sad, hurt or maybe something else. Maybe other life forms – other animals or even plants – can understand something. Perhaps only a rock would be totally unperturbed if we tried to communicate something to it.

But let’s leave such extreme cases aside, and focus on cases where we might be able to assume we „speak the same language“. You might be aware that speaking the same language is not a simple and straightforward matter. Some people might only know a few words (and might be able to answer a question like „Do you speak English?“ with „Yes“ or „No“ – indeed: answering „no“ seems to be a little ironic, because the question was apparently correctly understood and appropriately answered).

Let’s consider the case in which someone might answer „Yes – a little“ to be the most distant relationship possible. This is the least intimate case – the „world-wide“ friend. We think of these acquaintances – or even faceless people – essentially as stick-figures with a pocket-dictionary of maybe one or two hundred words. If we could, we would gesticulate to try to make ourselves clear. As it is, we reduce our sentences to short, simple expressions.

Between these two extremes, a vast plethora of social relationships exist for each of us. In order to manage the complexity, we also maintain a repertoire of languages – or sub-languages, if you will: jargons (one jargon for each community, each type of kind of social relationship). Let me illustrate this with an example that should be familiar to most people familiar with popular sports. Let’s take soccer – or football, as it’s called in most of the English-speaking world outside of the United States. When football fans are watching a game on TV or listening to a match on the radio, and they hear the announcer scream „GOAL!“ then they are normally quite certain about what that means. Note that it is a keepers objective to keep a ball out of the goal – in other words: his (or her) goal is to keep the ball from crossing the line. Likewise: in other contexts, people might use the word „goal“ in a different sense than the very specific meaning given to the term in this context.

This is by no means an exceptional case. We speak differently with our children than we speak with our neighbors. We speak differently with our colleagues at work than we speak with government officials. Through role-playing scripts we understand that the number the person at the checkout just said means the amount we have to pay for our groceries. Such limits on language in particular situations makes communication more efficient.

Whereas humans can easily recognize a vast variety of contexts, this is not so – or at least not yet so – for the vast majority of „artificial intelligence“ – machines, computers, smartphones, robots, etc. For these mounds of metal and silicon chips, sweitches are either on or off – independent of context. Explaining context in a string of true-or-false bits is probably no easy matter, either. Machines require all minutiae explicated in complete detail. Everything must be formally expressed.

Perhaps artificial intellegence is the antithesis – the diametrical opposite – of intimacy?

Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. In any case it’s not a human thing. It can very useful to have such machines to tally up numbers – because they can be completely cool-headed and disengaged. My point here is not to argue for or against man or machine. My focus is 100% human – and the point is this: humans behave, engage and communicate differently in different contexts.

A one-size fits-all algorithm that is applied equally in all contexts will quite probably miss the mark completely in many contexts.

We should not try to mold humans into forms made for robots. If computers cannot understand humans, then that is a shortcoming of computers – not the other way around. We can still celebrate machines for their ability to perform some tasks, but we should not be so foolish to think that their abilities in some contexts makes them a suitable technology for all contexts.

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